Wilkinsburg High School suffering teacher shortage

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Students enrolled in chemistry class at Wilkinsburg High School are being taught by a certified art teacher.

In high school French classes, a certified health and physical education teacher is providing instruction.

Those revelations, which came in the wake of the Dec. 17 school board meeting, astonished new board President Edward J. Donovan.

"I know the way things ought to be. What I don't know entirely is how much out of whack things are in the way we are now," said Mr. Donovan, who is a faculty member and program director of the Chatham University's department of education.

The Dec. 17 meeting was the first legislative session held by a Wilkinsburg board with four new members, including Mr. Donovan.

As the board perused the personnel agenda, a discussion ensued about difficult-to-fill positions, including the chemistry job.

But what administrators didn't tell the board during the meeting is that the person currently teaching chemistry is a certified art teacher who is using materials from the Internet to teach the course.

Administrators also did not tell the board that a similar situation exists in French class, where the regular full-time teacher is on medical leave, and a health and physical education teacher is filling in.

Mr. Bradford said he finds both situations "unacceptable" and unfair to the students. It turns out they may also violate the state school code.

"The district should have a properly certified educator in these subject areas or should request an emergency certificate from the department," Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said in an email.

The district has not sought emergency certification for either instructor.

When Wilkinsburg High School's school performance profile was released by the state two weeks ago, its score of 36.3 out of 100 was the lowest of any school in Allegheny County and the 17th lowest of the 500 districts in the state. According to the academic profile, just 13 percent of Wilkinsburg High School students scored proficient or advanced in algebra, 18 percent in literature and about 3 percent in biology.

Superintendent Lee McFerren said he did not know the specifics about the certifications held by teachers at the high school and referred questions about the chemistry and French teachers to human resources director Andrea Williams.

Ms. Williams said the art teacher and health and physical education teacher are being used to teach subjects outside their certification area because the district cannot find a certified chemistry or French teacher to take the positions.

In the case of the French teacher, she said, the district had a certified substitute French teacher who quit in November. Ms. Williams said she was unable to find another certified substitute, so she was forced by the teacher's contract to recall a furloughed teacher. She said the contract requires the district to recall a furloughed teacher for any opening for which a certified teacher cannot be found. That's why the health and physical education teacher was given the job teaching French.

Recently, Ms. Williams was able to locate a certified French teacher interested in the position. She placed her name on the Dec. 17 personnel agenda and the board approved the hiring. The personnel agenda was not provided to the public, which angered several members of the audience, including former school director James Richard.

After the meeting, school directors found out that the substitute French teacher whose name was on the agenda and whose hiring was approved is a former Penn Hills High School administrator who was disciplined in 2010 after allegations that she used a racial slur to refer to a student.

School director Karen Payne voted against the French teacher but didn't explain her vote and could not be reached for comment. Mr. Donovan said he and the other board members were unaware of the background of the substitute teacher and that he planned to investigate the situation. He also said he plans to make the personnel agenda public at all future board meetings.

Ms. Williams said she was unaware of the French teacher's discipline in Penn Hills and that the district does not have to use her even though she was placed on the substitute list.

The art teacher who is teaching chemistry is not a furloughed Wilkinsburg teacher but rather a substitute who has worked for the district for the past four years, Ms. Williams said. She is teaching the course using ExploreLearning, an Internet product that offers interactive online simulations for math and science in grades 3-12.

Ms. Williams said she has talked with officials in other school districts who have told her there is a shortage of available chemistry teachers.

The U.S. Department of Education, which tracks teacher shortages, indicated that Pennsylvania did not report any shortages for the 2013-14 school year.

Mr. Eller said the state Education Department determines if the state is experiencing a teacher shortage by the number of emergency certifications issued. In recent years, the number of emergency permits approved has declined overall, though Mr. Eller said some geographic areas have trouble recruiting qualified, certified teachers in particular subject areas.

Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which operates PA Educator, an online listing of education job applicants and openings, said she has not heard from any districts in Allegheny County complaining of teacher shortages. But she also said that it's possible for a particular district to have trouble finding a teacher with a specific certification.

Mr. Donovan said he intends to visit each of the district's schools in the coming weeks to see what other problems or needs exist. Then, he said, the board will get down to the business of making as many improvements as possible, including recruiting properly certified teachers.

"We have a lot of back work to do before we can start moving forward," Mr. Donovan said. "But we are certainly going to start moving forward now."

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


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